Is gender identity inborn or does it arise from environment, and the constant social reinforcement of gender roles? Psychiatrists have been working on this conundrum for a long time, and I certainly haven’t got the answer. But my experience suggests that it’s social construction, that my gender identity is a reflection of my culture.

I was a boy born into a nonreligious but nonetheless culturally Jewish family in New Jersey in 1961. At the age of 5, I began secretly desiring to be a female, furtively dressing in female clothing, which remained more or less continuous throughout my life. At the age of 12, my parents, being dissatisfied with the quality of the local public school, gave me a choice of several private schools, including an orthodox “Yeshiva? day school. I was intrigued by religion and jumped at the chance. I became very religious, insisting, to my parent‘s chagrin, that the house be kept kosher, that I be permitted to enjoy the rigorous Shabbos rest (no use of electricity, money, cars or any form of work activities), and that all religious holiday be strictly observed. A series of prayers were to be recited three times a day. The local temple was an hour’s walk away, but I walked there and back on Shabbos despite my parents’ fears. The Orthodox shul was two hours away, and I walked there on nice Shabbos mornings. I spent hours a day studying the Chumash and the Gemmarah.

I soon realized, of course, that the Bible explicitly forbade cross-dressing, although I didn’t need the Scripture to tell me that such an activity was wrong, wrong, wrong. I was a fairly bright child, and realized my activities in my mother’s closet when the house was empty were, if discovered, likely to land me in hot water. I took great pains to ensure that my parents never knew of my activities. I remember memorizing the exact ways in which her dresses were hung and underwear folded away, so as to replace the garments in the exact same way. I often vowed never to repeat such activities, but always found myself back there sooner or later.

While I had these impulses at a young age, I did not think myself effeminate. I was on the football team at the private school which I attended in fourth and fifth grades, though I didn’t find it very engaging, and held my own when violently assaulted by the miscreants at the public school I returned to in sixth grade. However, I was peace-loving and brainy. I found classes boring, and failed to thrive in the school environment, although I was considered bright. My interactions with other children were difficult, marked by boredom on my part with their childish conversation and rejection on their part for my nerdy, arrogant ways. When I arrived at the Yeshiva, I felt as if I had arrived home. We studied fascinating subjects never taken up in the dull-normal schools I attended before. We argued about the origins of the world, the meaning of angels, whether there were 39 forbidden acts on the Shabbas or 40. At the Yeshiva, debate was the sine qua non of life there. Following our elders, intense debate characterized all interactions, both inside and outside of class. Yet these debates, although vigorous, were never intentionally aggressive, never physical, and never involved any hint of a threat of violence. In fact, following religious dictates, physicality of all sorts was abhorred. Only the love of and the study of God’s word was worth any effort at all. Sports and games of any kind were anathema. They were distractions from the real purpose of life – dedication to God. The ideal image of the orthodox Jewish man that I grew up with was a thin, pasty, white man with a beard, unfashionably dressed, stooped over his book in the study hall, who spent 18 hours a day studying, slept little, and who was willingly supported by his wife to further his study. He spoke softly, with an Eastern European accent, even in Hebrew, and found it hard to focus on the material world. His focus, rather, was on God’s word, and his deeper understanding of the world and contempt for shallower materialistic and physicalistic cultures flowed from this study. He had unbounded compassion for all. I aspired to this ideal of meek masculinity with all my heart and soul.

In eleventh grade, I had to return to public school. I found a shockingly different social world dominated by jocks and punks. My first week in the school, I was challenged by a troubled student who began to pick on me and call me names. I was somewhat apprehensive about a fight, but felt that I could hold my own. I had been lifting weights under my father’s tutelage, who was trying to make a man of me, and he taught me a few boxing moves. When the bully blocked my path, called me a “pussy” and pushed me, both he and I were extremely surprised by my response, which was to punch him really hard several times until stopped by a teacher. I appeared to him to be “a pussy,? as he had loudly opined on several previous occasions. He wasn’t the only one who thought so, either. Yet I was not. Rather, I had constructed my gender identity to conform to that of an orthodox Jewish man of Eastern European extraction. It was not a sort of masculinity he had previously encountered. Clearly, to him, those who did not conform to the standard version of macho masculinity prevalent in my primarily blue-collar public school were unmasculine and therefore feminine. I hated this macho stuff and wished never to be a part of it.

Despite my feelings of vindication by virtue of winning this fight, it did not correct my unmasculine image at school. The boys at school did not challenge me, but they also left me alone in the main. The girls at school seemed generally uninterested in my version of masculinity. I muddled through high school as best I could and went to back to my orthodox religious roots, attending college at Yeshiva University, an orthodox all-male institution. I intended to go on to the rabbinate, but my mother was unalterably opposed to this, and I followed her insistence that I attend law school. When my father died, I moved home, and my religious convictions began to waver in the face of the world. I met a nice non-religious woman. I married her, and had a child. I hoped to live a “normal” life. I hoped that my gender identity issues were gone. And they were. For a while.

At the age of 33, my gender identity issues raged up again, and I began to suffer from depression, and had career problems. When my marriage, my career and my desire to live began to nose downwards rapidly at the same time, my gender seemed more than ever to be a focus of the problem. I consulted a psychotherapist and went to gender support groups. After we agreed to divorce, and I was fired from my fifth job, I felt suicidal, and thought it would be best for others in my life if I were not there. I began to seriously consider gender transition, which to me seemed a reason to live. But it was clear that wasn’t going to be easy. I did not look particularly feminine and was significantly overweight. I was clear that I would be unable to work in my profession, and would likely be unable to obtain any but the most menial employment. I had never been attracted to men, and most transgender life was found in nightclubs and bars which I didn’t particularly enjoy. This was going to make my already tenuous life more unstable. My counselors were supportive, but dubious, and did their best to warn me that life would be hard and adjustment to femininity would be a long process. But….I felt as if it were the most important thing in my life. It gave me a reason to live. I would do it.

I dieted. I took up rollerblading 10 miles every day. I lost weight, I took hormones, grew my hair out, learned to be feminine. I bought some nice clothes, learned to put on makeup. I worked on walking styles and talking through my nose. I had thought it was going to be difficult, but it wasn’t. It worked spectacularly, and I rapidly began to pass as female. Within six months, new acquaintances were surprised, shocked, astounded to learn that I had once been male. Psychotherapists and endocrinologists whose professions involved serving transgender patients expressed amazement that I had been transitioning for such a short time, as it usually took years for their patients to pass as female. Though I did go to those nightclubs, and received many meretricious offers, I took a job as a secretary, and earned a decent, honest living. I dated men, had some serious love relationships, yet still loved women too. I went back to school for a doctorate, and found a position as a professor of law. My life regained stability, and I was happy. Still am.

Thinking back on this history, I am always surprised at the fact that my desire to transition did not coincide with any effeminacy in childhood. Rather, I should say that I never seemed to myself to be effeminate. Upon reflection, however, I realized that my “masculinity? was, in fact, closer to what American culture calls “femininity? – meekness, docility, lack of physicality, cooperativeness, compassion. It is impossible to say, at this point, whether my initial desire to be a girl occurred because of some inborn genetic or psychological trait, or as a result of my parents’ treatment of me, or because of environmental stresses. Yet, whatever the reason, my orthodox Jewish religious images of meek masculinity enabled me to slip almost effortlessly into American femininity as if I had been trained for the role. Indeed, my upbringing revered these feminine qualities, though it revered neither women nor transgenders. Would I have been so successful at it, if I had a more traditional American upbringing? Would I have made such a choice? Indeed, neither did I choose it in a sense, for it was not a rational choice. Rather, there was every reason to believe it would be a disaster from every viewpoint — save one, which was that I felt I had no other choice. God had chosen for me.